In this article, I look into photographs of Syrian women published in Syrian media outlets (print or online) and some audiovisual images, to a lesser extent. I Only look at the written/spoken commentary in terms of how the image is contextualized. This does not include the artistic visual depiction of women, the depiction of non-Syrian women nor the depiction of Syrian women in non-Syrian media outlets.
I argue here that the sexism practised against the visual portrayal of women (or lack of, actually), is absence; an actual absence enforced on her lived reality by social norms and state or non-state legislation, a media enforced absence through different types of censorship, and a practical absence through shallow meaningless portrayals motivated by political propaganda on emancipation. The array of erosive tools used, against her actions, her voice and her body, are as diverse as those working in the media field itself.
But who are those working in Syrian media today, and what are the most common tools used, and for what reasons or excuses? To answer that, especially for a non-Syrian audience, some introduction is due.
Security and display of Identities
Among all the symbols of religion and ethnicity used, unsurprisingly, the female-body-related ones are the most famous: the veil.
Not all veil wearing women in Syria are Sunni Muslims. Not all Sunni Muslim women wear veils. Enough has been written about orientalism, veils and fetish to save this article that burden, and yet the political/identity confusion the symbol still creates (1), pushes me to recap on its geoeconomic connotations.
Head covering traditionally stemmed from protection from the environment, it was cemented by religion for (mainly) Muslim women, and enforced by norms for men and other women. Unlike in Europe, where removing hats was a sign of respect, the term “in the bald/ Bil Qar’a” was used in Syria to ridicule those that go “head-naked”. Thus a Syrian farmer, for example, would not traditionally host guests without adorning his head cover (suluk or kofieh), as a sign of respect to them, whereas his wife’s head cover is viewed as both respectful and pious, across different sects.
In times of war, refugee camps and chaos, piety turns into a form of protection for vulnerable women, so a stricter adherence to religious or cultural norms prevails. This might explain why in almost each and every photo we see of refugee/displaced women, they are wearingheadscarfs, or even facescarfs/niqabs. So I dare say this is one stereotype not to be fully blamed on the media! It might also explain why a foreign audience, who’s main concern/knowledge of Syria is related to their concern about refugees, assume all Syrian women are similarly dressed.
Syria today ranks in the bottom 5 globally in freedom of the press, rated as the most dangerous country for journalists repeatedly since 2011. Volumes can be written on the types, agendas, strategies, and techniques of censorship journalists attempts to survive daily. Among those, the most relevant to this article are direct censorship by armed forces on publications and reporters’ accessibility (imposed by the 3 major armies in battle: The regime, the YPG & Islamic militias). Censorship on everyday freedom of expression and social media (by the regime and ISIL & Qaida affiliates). Censorship on editorial policies and priorities (by sexist funders and orientalist gatekeepers). Censorship on new narratives and complex intersectional points of view (by traditional or lazy editors).
The repercussions of political oppression also echo more on women’s attire in public than men’s. For example, it was easy to confuse a woman who normally wears a niqab with one that only wears it during a demonstration to avoid being identified in photos published of the activity. So some women resorted to wearing a flag rather than a veil for masking, or used medical masks, to insure no religious agenda/affiliation is mistakenly assumed by her masking. Men didn’t have to worry about such considerations. Women’s bodies are contested and appropriated with no less complexity than the battle over territory.
The struggle was shared by women trying to hold on for their share of presence in the increasingly militarized public spheres, as well as young journalists trying to cover that presence. Even if they dodged shelling and arrests, worked their way around checkpoints and alliance conditioned accessibility, they still had to handle politicized funding agendas of major mass media outlets. Sticking to their professional standards may eliminate them editorially from ground missions due to the trouble their presence might cause. If the young stubborn photographer finally arrives, and encounters a woman who managed to circumvent similar odds to reach a demonstration, and accepts prolonging the confrontations by publishing her photo, the photo would probably only be published on the photographer’s personal social media page. The few cases that made it to publication, due to higher aesthetic quality, ended up overly circulated, becoming an icon for some, a cliche for others.
“The images that mobilise conscience are always linked to a given historical situation. The more general they are, the less likely they are to be effective.” Susan Sontag, On Photography.
All of the above has encouraged the excessive use of generic photos, due to the multilayered limitations on filming inside Syria. Too often do editors rely on stock photos as a mere design tool, rather than informative documentation. The rather modest photojournalists tradition in the country through decades of media censorship pre-2011 did not help with this either. The result is that when a photographer does get a chance for a good shoot, he or she knows they are not likely to get another chance for each story they cover, so they aim for generic photos as well, to stock a backup repository. Another problem is the lack of coordination between the photographers and the writers/editors. Usually, it’s either the writers that take the photos themselves during their fieldwork, which often means less quality (mere evidence) images, or there is a designated (generally young) photographer, with whom the writer rarely shares the editorial plan in-depth. This also leads to generic, rather than informatively complementing, photos.
Women and quota
Syria is a signatory to the CEDAW, but with restrictions on several articles. Civil laws organising marriage, divorce, and custody were written in the 1950s and continue with very little amendments since. The worst consequence of that is the complete disregard of working women’s economic contribution to their households. This had crippling effects on their labour force share (2) and consequently, their overall emancipation. Other sexist laws include the heredity law, the nationality law, the criminal law, as well as the constitution itself, which even in its 2012 version, still states that the president can only be male. Sexism in Syria is first and foremost, legal.
Women’s presence in politics or public office was viewed as a hollow facade, a result of quotas, formal or implied, stemming from liberal rhetoric more at play in words than actions. That still didn’t get her more than 12% of parliament seats.
Given this grey reality, women’s representation in the media is not only viewed as a trivial matter but also, as media professionals argue, it is a “natural” representation of the reality of her absence from public spheres. This is true to a certain degree. In fact, attempts to focus on women’s achievements because they are women, fishing for those 12 or 15%, not only constitutes a clear political agenda with deliberate selectivity but also doesn’t really work. Media ends up celebrating trivial events as achievements, which demeans women further. The term “hummus plate festivity” was used by one of the photographers interviewed for this article (3), Guevara Namer, to describe the trivialities media focuses on when forcing itself to emphasize women’s role: “If a women “succeeds” in making a good hummus plate, they publish an article about it!”.
On the other hand, media outlets that genuinely want to positively portray and empower women, and are willing to put in the work and budget needed to learn and develop how to do it within a Syrian context, are mainly outlets specialised in women issues. While it’s great to have some dedicated platforms, isolation fails to mainstream women as they are; a normal half of human society. These platforms are sometimes justified by the feminists working in them as necessary incubators, for experimentation and training, setting an example for other outlets to learn from.
What I argue here is not the quota of quantity, but rather the quality of women’s portrayal. It is not only a problem of underrepresentation, but also of misrepresentation. We don’t want to shoot the messenger, but the messengers here are not only carrying the message, but they are also forming it.
Ninjas and Flowerpots
Unlike the head veil tradition, niqabs, or face veils, are viewed as a recent trend overall. I carefully use the word “overall” because macro-cultures in Syria can differ substantially. Statistically, however, urban and agricultural communities present the vast majority of the population. Urban centres in Syria have not viewed face covering as the norm for about a century now, while the nature of farm work and the more relaxed rural gender binaries resulted in it almost never having been a village norm, to begin with.
In the mid-1990s, when the first few young women started wearing niqabs in city streets, males giving themselves the right to comment on their attire would cat-call them “Ninjas”. It seems little contested that the trend resulted from an influence of mainly Saudi religious interpretations. Yet many a rumour circulated regarding the real reasons behind this new fashion, from the “She’s probably really ugly”, to the sexy “she’s more mysterious like that” and the suspicious “watch your purse, she’s probably a pickpocket!”.
Today, with the industry-scale funding pumped into certain armed militias for political Islamic agendas, funders’ gender politics are also enforced by arms upon the communities whose areas they control. Not only did this result in print distribution being occasionally banned under the pretext of uncovered women’s photos (4), it also meant they actually physically forced all women to wear head covers, or even niqabs sometimes. The censorship extended to denying access or “filming permits” to photographers with different ideologies or gender agendas.
The result is a semi-complete absence of the photos of Syrian women in the publications of Islamic media outlets, a strong absence among opposition outlets operating in areas controlled by Islamic militias, and a few, limited but proud, publications circulated in those areas that have worked their best to keep publishing women’s photos.
Yet, it is worth noting, that it is their “ideology”; their belief in the importance of women’s emancipation, that has motivated them, rather than their professional commitment to depicting the reality accurately. This too, as mentioned earlier, has its shortcomings.
New emerging/opposition online publications tend to have more flexibility in publishing women’s photos, but less accessibility to actually taking those photos from inside Syria, as they are censored by both the regime and Islamic militias. So a lot of the images we see of Syrian women on those platforms are either taken in secret, with poor quality, or filmed abroad, inneighbouring countries or diaspora, or they are bought or borrowed from other platforms.
Those that enjoy full camera accessibility to the territory they control, i.e. officially-licensed Kurdish and regime media, rarely depict photos of niqabs with much prominence. As a matter of fact, the regime state apparatus was not guiltless in policing women’s bodies either, only in the opposite direction. Schoolgirls were occasionally forbidden to wearheadscarfs to school because it violated uniform codes, which where khaki army suits for all junior and high school students till the early 2000s.
Despite how commonheadscarfs became in cities by the 80s & 90s (5), urban women were never depicted wearing any in the renowned Syrian drama till the mid-2000s, and it was definitely never an option for a TV presenter. Today, regime media flaunts videos of female army conscripts wearing headscarfs beneath their army hats, to rebuff accusations of military sectarianism.
“The Illustrative function of photographs leaves opinions, prejudices, fantasies, misinformation untouched.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others.
The 3rd and worst type of visual censorshippractised against Syrian women is that of silence, of passive support, or what Syrians jokingly nick-name “The flower-pot position”. It refers to the role of a person in a frame resembling that of a flowerpot, standing vaguely in the background, as mere furniture.
This is most commonly used in media outlets with a liberal propaganda agenda, failing to even stage it convincingly. Too often, women that actually make it into the frame are there as stunts, passers-by, audience, support staff, back row protestors, etc…
Those attempting to flower-pot women vary in their affiliation and messages.
Regime media wants to picture “their” women as liberated and modern, so photographs focus on including them within the frames, in an ornament, almost decorative style: Smart clothes, make-up, and classical for-the-camera smiles. However, they are rarely centre frame as individuals with something to say or do, unless the photo is about her very person… if she’s a famous star or public office employee, maybe. Simultaneously, it persistently only pictures women from opposition areas as poor, veiled and in distress.
“Most cultures seem to expect men to protect their women, but only from other men” Anja Meulenbelt, Het Verschil (The Difference).
A women’s plight is mainly depicted when there is political gain behind accusing another side of assaulting her: ISIS victims, displaced women from opposition-controlled areas or simply those that sought refuge abroad to save their men from drafting. Poor women living in regime-controlled areas with no political affiliations are ignored. Mothers standing every day at the courthouse gates awaiting any news about their detained sons, incommunicado in regime security prisons for years, are definitely never shown.
The overall rhetoric here is: "Women can enjoy their lives only inasmuch as they are loyal to the regime.” Their selective freedom is a gift bestowed upon them, not a right for everyone, so be careful, because it can be taken away any minute.
Some Kurdish outlets also occasionally play the emancipation portrayal game, albeit to a lesser extent. Women are also used as ornaments, centre framed for display purposes, such as traditional attire in festivities. Yet the difference is notable, as silent women displayed here tend to be more spontaneous and varied in their attire, not necessarily smiling for the camera as pretty girls or in distress as burdened mothers. I will discuss social roles and professions later in this article.
Emerging media outlets publishing online don’t seem to have much emancipation facade agendas, but they do occasionally use the distant presence of women in public spaces in their frames as a sign of “normal" life returning to the area. Shopping here is the keyword. The cliche being: "War is a battle of men, peace is a market full of women.” Since the majority of Syrian photographers working in these risky conditions were young amateurs that developed into professionals during the war, they became war photographers. Women are no priority for the battle news flash.
The portrayal of children in photography certainly needs its own article, but in relation to women as ornaments, children are used as substitute ornaments more often in media outlets photographing in opposition-held areas.
Finally, I cannot but address the matter of size and angles. Part of the silencing of the voice, and the face with its expressions, is using long takes from a distance that render features undepictable, or profile and back angles that show little or no faces. A common reason used by editors is the issue of privacy and permits. A close up is more personal, and it’s culturally easier to attain permissions from men than from women, so the photographers do not bother.
Also, in emerging media outlets, whether they are in opposition-held areas, or operating “pre-license” in regime-held territory (6), security concerns are used over and again to justify eroding women’s faces: Fear of the regime, fear of Islamic militias, fear of conservative family members, or well-connected vengeful relatives, etc…
Although men in detention or killed under torture staggeringly outnumber women, female ex-detainees often endure social stigma even after brief arrests (7), causing the security card to be played way more for concealing women’s faces than men’s.
Professionals, victims and normal humans
“Women are only given centre stage if they are in distress”, says Rula Asad of the Syrian Female Journalist Network. The SFJ Network had carried out a research study in 2016 about the portrayal of women in emerging media in Syria. They regularly give training and lobby to better synthesise media professionals on gender issues.
While discussing the size and portion within the frame that a women’s face might occupy, it seems the only outlets that give a single identifiable smiling womencentre stage are those dedicated to, or discussing, women’s issues.
For example, despite the fact that the majority of school teachers in Syria are women, in addition to a handsome share of university professors, yet in photos, the only occasion a woman gives a training or lecture to a group of men or men and women, is when the training is related to gender issues. Traditional professions seem to be the only ones women are depicted working at: caretakers (medical and educational), assistants, entertainment, house chores, public office positions and on women issues. It’s not because Syrian women don’t work in the private sector, or retail shops, or lawyers, or bankers, or engineers. They certainly do, but rarely in photographs published by Syrian media.
Even their social roles are stereotyped: Motherhood is used and abused to an almost meaningless extent. This is a global problem: The holiness of the sacrificing virgin mother enduring the plight of her son is the ideal virtue in the collective memory of many. But expecting women to meet “up” to that example, or be deemed undeserving, of our attention or appreciation, is a problem.
Since the social position of mothers in Syrian culture is ultra-central, her iconicvictimisation rings through and through visually. This does not stem only from respect for mothers, but also from contempt or disregard to any women that owns her life instead of pledge it in sacrifice to other men; as "the mother of the male martyr" or the widow or "the daughter of the male detainee”, not as an independent person, citizen or professional.
Other social roles are also hollowed out of their owner’s control, and presented as mere participation or consumption, with no responsibility, productivity or decision making. We see many students, but somehow, very little friends. Many pious women attending mass, but never leading any ceremony. Countless shoppers (8) but hardly any shopkeepers. Charity and volunteering enthusiasts, but few entrepreneurs.
Of course, this is not to underestimate the scale of the tragedy in any way. These women truly are in trouble, as most of them had not been raised to support themselves economically, let alone their families. They have had very little experience in a normal job market to survive a collapsing one. In Syria too, lower-income families tend to have more children. This is indeed a disaster to society as a whole. Two-thirds of the population has been displaced, casualty estimates mounted to half a million (9), missing and detained men are counted in 5 digits, and residual injuries in 7 digits, in a country whose population estimates pre-2011 were around 22 million.
While the vast majority of direct victims; casualties and detainees, are men (10), media plays way more on women as victims. Even in the middle of a residential area shelling, civilian men in the middle of their plight, are often portrayed in action, doing something on the street: running, shouting, carrying someone, standing up and pointing at something… Women are portrayed sitting quietly in their own little corner, indoors, usually with young children surrounding them. Cliched through and though.
How does a displaced widow provide for her family? We might not know how exactly, but certainly she does something!
Obviously, this is not an exclusively Syrian issue, “women and children” is a phrase used in any disaster context not just by the media, but also in legal texts. What is up to the media is a choice of perspective: How much they focus on women as victims versus survivors, active individuals, or just normal human beings.
Here again, we have political agendas at play: Islamists’ media portray her exclusively as a victim to be pitied and helped. The best she is praised for "doing" is endurance. Images of women here are used more often as a symbol of motherhood than the other way around. Opposition and Kurdish media also focus on her victimisation, but they do portray the other side of her resistance and success stories as well. They give her slightly more voice to speak out, vent, suggest or even demand change. It is here that we start seeing women protesting against the forces in control of the areas they live in, instead of in support of them. The most iconic of those was Soad Nofal, who held one-women stand-ins against ISIS in her city of Raqqa in 2013.
This never happens in regime media. Although it does focus more on women’s resistance than plight, it only does so via collective ownership: ”Our/Syrian women” are resilient, charitable, religious, educated, etc… But it rarely boils down to appreciating any single individual women as her own entity, or her saying anything out of the self-sacrificing cliches of pledging her life and family to the homeland. It is more a front of women, the social soldiers, willing sacrificers, that are praised. The exception to that are the first women to brave a “new” profession, that was male-exclusive before the war but now lacks labor force due to drafting. This military "detail" is usually overlooked by regime rhetoric, however, and the issue is presented purely in the light of women emancipation braving another frontier. Thus the narrative becomes collective again…
Here too, it seems only women-oriented media outlets reflect a more varied representation of the reality of women’s lives. They focus more on hearing her out, in plight or success than speaking for or about her. Women here work in all sorts of professions and have personal ambitions beyond family and homeland. They are more often given centre stage, depicted with their faces smiling about something they had accomplished, rather than attended. More importantly, they dare to criticise systematic male prejudices against them, instead of using the anonymous and unaccountable words: “Our society does not allow/judges women for this and that...”, like it was just a natural part of life on planet earth with no culprits orchestrating it.
The Armed Fetish
Emerging media gives little attention overall to Arab female fighters, for several reasons: A peaceful stance against glorifying weapons is one, a civilian or an apolitical agenda that avoids military news to dodge censorship is another, a sexist ideology uncomfortable with depicting strength in women’s bodies is a third, a reactionary-sexist ideology that worries depicting female fighters will trivialise the battle when a sexist audience starts commenting on their bodies rather than their combat mission is a fourth, a professional concern that avoids playing into emancipation-facade games is a fifth…
There were a few occasions where some opposition and some Islamist outlets depicted female fighters among their ranks, but it was always the exception, as is the reality of women in their forces.
Regime forces have been encouraging female volunteers recently, although it’s mentioned they serve more on urban checkpoints than on frontlines, with the acceptation of a few snipers perhaps. Part of the media campaign to encourage volunteering was to glorify those women and their sacrifices for the homeland, considering them more manly than the “males, not men” that have deserted their national duties and fled the country to avoid drafting, according to Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad in a video released for mother’s day.
The footage, besides Assad’s, also contains words by some of the female volunteers aforementioned. A closer look at that footage reveals their portrayal as problematic for many reasons.
The orchestrated nature of the material leaves much for doubts about the authenticity of this information, with the repeated single narrative suggesting the interviews are pre-scripted to match up with the propaganda, returning us to the inevitable question in military media: How much freedom do individuals have within their functions in military institutions, and consequently, how emancipating is belonging to such institutions?
The monotone statements mentally flatten the image portrayed, leaving no room for the audience to question or reflect any deeper. This makes it harder to connect or identify with those women. Perhaps they are not so flower-potty here, but on the verge of icons… or aliens.
Another line of contesting is how those portrayals further emphasize traditional gender roles, instead of challenging them, when they consider those women “braver than many men”? One of the young women, in a scene of a phone call she makes to her father from the frontline, literally says: “Don’t worry dad, you’ve raised men, not girls”… in reference to herself. This patriarchal omnipotence speaks volumes of the "emancipatory" nature of women’s participation in those forces.
“Whose fault is this? Is it my fault, or Facebook’s, or her father’s, or God’s? Whose fault is it?!” scuffed out Guevara Namer at the end of our chat about Kurdish female fighters. As a photographer and a Kurdish female filmmaker herself, Guevara feels a sense of ironic parallel with those women: “We are both KFF, only I’m Filmmaker and they are Fighter”.
During her art residency in Barcelona last year, she had many a heated discussion about the topic. She remembers: “This trend didn’t start in Kurdish media, and didn’t start with this war. Western media have been covering Kurdish female fighters since the 80s… It was the only armed movement of it’s kind in the world to be %50 female”.
When she was shooting her latest project in Manbij a few months ago, she described the surprise she constantly confronted due to the assumption that, if she’s filming there, it must be about the sexy Kurdish female fighter. That is the message everyone wants to hear, so it’s what they keep sending out.
She spoke with much dismay:
“How can I ever forget what happened to that poor girl. Some western journalist nicknamed her the Angelina Jolie of Kurdish female fighters and suddenly her face was all over the world. They made such a star out of her, that ISIS decided to get her specifically. They worked on it for 2 months, targeted her entire group of 20 women, and killed them all. She was only 19.”
Despite her many reservations on Syrian media’s weaknesses, she says at least it’s not the one that commercially sexualizes people on a gender basis. For Kurds, these women have been fighting for 30 or 40 years, they follow the news of the male and female fighters in the same “normalised" manner: This is the reality, it’s a war and these people are fighting it.
It was the western portrayal here that flattened out the image, leaving little room for reflection or questions: “…celebrating it from a purely sexual and gender perspective, and not allowing the space for people to ask: Who are these women? Why does a 19-year-old go to fight? Did you even ask yourself that she never went to school for example? or that she is already a divorced mother of 2 at 19? That no one ever told her that she had any other option in life, wanting to flee her abusive brother or husband she picked up a weapon… no one bothered to take one step further beyond this image. […] The celebrated achievement for that media was to fly in and take another photo of girls holding PKCs and grenades and standing on the frontline, like we didn’t already know that!”.
What this means is that for western media, the information is still doubted, and they constantly just want to prove it. They add no new information whatsoever in those images.
Arab Syrian media, on the other hand, regime or opposition or Islamist, did not celebrate the image so much. Barely did the KFF appear in their photos. The most iconic image related to this in Syrian media was that of the Arab women from Raqqa, removing her black overdress, to reveal the red one she wore underneath after the area was liberated from ISIS, while simultaneously completely ignoring to represent the KFFs that liberated her. The celebration was of her liberation by others, while ignoring those others. This stems not only from sexist but also from ethnic politics against Kurdistan. The result is that while many Kurds are handling the matter as a regular part of their lives, the rest of Syria is simply ignoring it, widening the rift.
Namer stresses on not underestimating the achievement made here, ofcourse it’s great that women are creating change on the ground with their own hands, of course it’s great they hold high ranking and decision making positions, this is not something you see neither elsewhere in Syria, nor in Iraqi Kurdistan. But this is not all there is to this story, and the sad reality of why young people chose battlefield, or how they are drafted to it, should not be overlooked just because they are females.
“You find divorced fighters that have their children with them, fighters that have escaped the beating of their husbands without kids… You find a fighter that is convinced, she wants to liberate, I even saw one case [that had joined] because she wants to drive [a car]. I also met young women with sexual identity issues they are not even aware of! […] You end up being the one breaking the image that has become holy now for an entire nation. But I don’t want to break the image, I respect all this sacrifice, of course I am moved when a 20-year-old fighter is killed, of course I am moved when, among 80 trainees in a military course, I find 1 pretty one. Because the pretty ones got married,hunny! It’s not the pretty ones that join the army (11).”
2. In 2010 women only mounted to 15% of the workforce, after reaching 22% in 1995.
3. Not all interviews and discussions are mentioned here, for security reasons, but fact-checking from them has been used throughout the article.
4. Editors interviewed for this article emphasized the deeper political motivations behind such “bans”. https://www.almodon.com/media/2015/4/16/بأمر-من-النصرة--عنب-بلدي-ممنوعة-في-إدلب
5. How the headscarf trend re-started urbanely is another long story!
6. The term used by a journalist I spoke to in Damascus, where obtaining formal permits for media outlets is highly politicized and almost impossible to independently attain. Many apolitical outlets operate precariously without licenses as a favour from officials that turn a blind eye on an outlet’s operation as they postpone, for years, deciding on its permit request.
9. Precise numbers are contested for both political and logistical reasons.
10. Even among civilians, men vastly outnumber women, whose casualties average similarly with children.
11. Obligatory drafting only takes 1 child per family.
This article is included in the series "Dones i representació mediàtica en contextos de conflicte", published with suport from the Catalan Government: